For anyone who wanted an illustration of what makes hockey players a special breed, look no further than Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final in Los Angeles this week. With the Kings leading the series 3-0 and coming off an impressive 4-0 shutout victory in Game 3, the entire city of Los Angeles was ready to witness the death blow on Wednesday. Awful tickets in the nosebleeds (we are talking, touch-the-ceiling bad) were going for $1,200 per seat. If you were willing to kick down 10x that much, you could have found yourself seats on the glass for a potential history making event.
That’s precisely what Game 4 felt like—a history making event. With absolutely no disrespect to the Devils, Game 4 felt like more of a Kings’ coronation than a hockey game between two well-matched opponents. The Devils looked like they came unraveled in Game 3. After the game, they had the look of a defeated team that was simply biding their time before the inevitable.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the Staples Center hallway, the Kings were saying all the right things. “We haven’t won anything yet.” “The fourth win of a series is always the toughest.” “We’re going to see their best effort next game.” More important than the recycled quotes, it was the manner in which they delivered the even-keeled responses. They were saying the right things and it appeared as though they believed it.
They may have been the only 20 people in Los Angeles that believed it. The rest of the city was counting down towards the inevitably party on Wednesday night. It was going to be unforgettable.
For diehards and bandwagoners alike, Game 4 was supposed to be a celebration. It was overheard that there were people lining up to get into an ESPN Zone watch party at 7:00am on Wednesday. There were throngs of people who were showing up to the LA Live area without tickets—just to be near history. There were people who showed up three hours before the game only to find out that every restaurant with TVs was already filled.
In a city that loves events, the Kings’ presumed celebration was exactly the kind of party that LA loves to host.
Finally, after two days of anticipation, they mercifully dropped the puck on Game 4. Only sixty minutes left until the Kings could launch the biggest hockey celebration Los Angeles had ever seen. At least that’s how the Hollywood script read.
But a funny thing happed on the way to the Stanley Cup presentation. The Devils not only withstood the expected Kings’ surge to start the game, but they also controlled long stretches of the first period. They escaped their arch nemesis (otherwise known as, “the second period”) and finally scored the all elusive first goal of the game. This is what they needed, right? They were 8-2 in the playoffs when scoring the first goal; the Kings were 9-1. So the rest of the game should have been Easy St. This is not how the screenplay was supposed to read.
Then the Kings scored 60 seconds later.
All signs pointed towards New Jersey’s demise. No one at Staples Center had seen the script, but this made perfect sense. Struggle against a team that is fighting for its playoff lives, watch Los Angeles score a goal, and then witness the Kings take their game to another level to the delight of the record-setting crowd. Euphoria would ensue.
The Kings had done the same thing countless times throughout the playoffs. Right when the opposition thought they had found hope, the Kings brought their intensity to another level and left their opponents wondering what happened. They had only given up one goal in the 3rd period in the previous eight games. So why should the Cup clinching game be any different? After all, they had to win, so this seemed like the perfect way to do it.
Except the Devils didn’t fade away. They withstood the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity pulsing through Staples Center after Drew Doughty’s 3rd period goal. They stayed the course. And when given a glimmer of opportunity, Adam Henrique cleanly beat Jonathan Quick for the first time of the series. Then Ilya Kovalchuk buried an empty-netter to leave the Staples Center crowd completely shell-shocked. Not only were the Devils able to break through for a third period goal–they broke through for three.
The Devils winning a game in the Stanley Cup Final isn’t all that surprising. They’ve already beaten two division champs this postseason and walked through their rivals from across the Delaware River. But after dropping the first three games to Los Angeles, no one would have been surprised if they packed it in and mentally checked-out of the series before Game 4. No one would have blamed them because fans and media members alike expected it.
They were dead man walking.
Game 4 wasn’t a case of the Kings failing to show up. The Devils played their game more effectively than they have all series. The Kings didn’t lose the game—the Devils went out and won the game when their backs were against the wall. Blaming the Kings for overconfidence simply disrespects the effort New Jersey summoned for a must-win game. The Devils needed to win the game—so they took it.
For a sport that is founded on passion and energy, there will always be a flaw in statistics until they find a way to measure heart. Who wins the 50/50 puck in the corner when both guys have a shot at the puck? Who is willing to throw their body in front of a puck to make an attacking forward pass up a scoring opportunity? Who will provide so much relentless pressure on opposing defensemen that it causes an exhausted opponent to make a critical mistake in the 3rd period? Who will negate a clear cut icing call because they are willing to put their head down and skate—even when it doesn’t look like they’ll get there in time?
Advanced stats advocates will tell you that there’s no such thing as a player that is “clutch.” They’ll tell you that it’s a myth that is nothing more than a quirk of percentages for certain players. Likewise, plus/minus is a flawed stat that can’t be trusted for individual players. Still, I’m waiting for an advanced metric that measures pride.
Only time will tell if the Kings are able to win that final game to turn Hollywood into Hockeywood. There’s a reason that only three teams have ever come back from an 0-3 deficit. But one thing is for sure, the Devils won’t go down without a fight. If anyone doubted that before—Game 4 should serve as a reminder that “quit” isn’t in the vocabulary for any effective hockey player. And it certainly isn’t in the vocabulary for any successful hockey team.
That’s just how hockey players are built.